Stepping up to the urinal in his office restroom, director David Zucker is telling a story about the time he met Woody Allen at a Knicks game. Allen had always been one of Zucker’s comedy gods, and his early films like Bananas and Sleeper have been a huge inspiration for Zucker’s own movies, which include the seminal 1980 disaster-flick spoof Airplane!, the Naked Gun films, and his latest, Scary Movie 4. Now that he was finally meeting his idol, Zucker was stunned that all Allen could talk about was how much he loved Airplane! In fact, Allen told him he’d first seen Airplane! at a screening with the legendary film critic Pauline Kael; she hated it and was ready to pan it in The New Yorker, but Allen convinced her not to write a review, since she obviously didn’t get it. ”He said every time he catches a minute of Airplane! somewhere, he gets sucked in,” Zucker remembers, shaking his head with quiet disbelief.
Woody had it right. Anyone who wanted to show an alien race what humans find funny could do worse than to screen any three minutes of Airplane!: the jive-talking-old-white-lady bit, say, or Peter Graves gravely asking a young boy, ”You ever seen a grown man naked?” With that film and others, Zucker and his collaborators — his younger brother, Jerry, and their childhood friend from Milwaukee, Jim Abrahams — set a new standard for unabashedly ridiculous, sacred-cow-tipping comedy, inspiring legions of acolytes and imitators. You can see their sublimely silly DNA in everything from Dumb and Dumber to The Simpsons to South Park — and Abrahams gives David Zucker much of the credit. ”He was really the visionary,” he says.
At 59, Zucker still seems blessed with the sense of humor of a 14-year-old. Scary Movie 4, his second go-round on the horror-parody franchise, lays waste to such targets as Saw, War of the Worlds, and The Grudge — with Zucker’s spoof cannon also taking aim at Tom Cruise and a thinly disguised George W. Bush (lampooned by Leslie Nielsen as a dithering buffoon who unwittingly gets naked in front of the U.N. General Assembly).
Today, in his Santa Monica office, Zucker looks back on three decades of putting good, bad, and so-bad-they’re-good jokes on the screen. With such a résumé, surely he’s earned a place in the comedy hall of fame, right? Absolutely. But don’t call him Shirley.
THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977)
In 1972, the Zucker brothers and Abrahams moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. Five years later, after establishing themselves with their Kentucky Fried Theater stage show, they kicked off their film careers with a wild collection of spoofs of porn movies, commercials, and chopsocky flicks, among other things. Directed by the virtually unknown John Landis (who’d go on to make the smash Animal House the following year), the $650,000 film grossed an impressive $15 million.
We hired John Landis because not only had we never directed a movie, we had never been on a movie set. It was black, tasteless humor: the charity for the dead kid, [the porn parody] Catholic High School Girls in Trouble. We had to do some snipping to get the R rating. The newscaster watching the couple having sex was on the borderline of an X. A lot of it is still edgy. But we were pretty innocent. Our audience was on drugs, but we weren’t. We’d meet each day at 10 a.m. and we’d have coffee — that was our drug. We came from Milwaukee, for chrissake!